The Secret Killers: Covert Assassins Charged With Hunting Down and Killing Afghans
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"Find, fix, finish, and follow-up" is the way the Pentagon describes the mission of secret military teams in Afghanistan which have been given a mandate to pursue alleged members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda wherever they may be found. Some call these “manhunting” operations and the units assigned to them “capture/kill” teams.
Whatever terminology you choose, the details of dozens of their specific operations -- and how they regularly went badly wrong -- have been revealed for the first time in the mass of secret U.S. military and intelligence documents published by the website Wikileaks in July to a storm of news coverage and official protest. Representing a form of U.S. covert warfare now on the rise, these teams regularly make more enemies than friends and undermine any goodwill created by U.S. reconstruction projects.
When Danny Hall and Gordon Phillips, the civilian and military directors of the U.S. provincial reconstruction team in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, arrived for a meeting with Gul Agha Sherzai, the local governor, in mid-June 2007, they knew that they had a lot of apologizing to do. Philips had to explain why a covert U.S. military “capture/kill” team named Task Force 373, hunting for Qari Ur-Rahman, an alleged Taliban commander given the code-name “Carbon,” had called in an AC-130 Spectre gunship and inadvertently killed seven Afghan police officers in the middle of the night.
The incident vividly demonstrated the inherent clash between two doctrines in the U.S. war in Afghanistan -- counterinsurgency (“protecting the people”) and counterterrorism (killing terrorists). Although the Obama administration has given lip service to the former, the latter has been, and continues to be, the driving force in its war in Afghanistan.
For Hall, a Foreign Service officer who was less than two months away from a plush assignment in London, working with the military had already proven more difficult than he expected. In an article for Foreign Service Journal published a couple of months before the meeting, he wrote, “I felt like I never really knew what was going on, where I was supposed to be, what my role was, or if I even had one. In particular, I didn't speak either language that I needed: Pashtu or military.”
It had been no less awkward for Phillips. Just a month earlier, he had personally handed over “solatia” payments -- condolence payments for civilian deaths wrongfully caused by U.S. forces -- in Governor Sherzai's presence, while condemning the act of a Taliban suicide bomber who had killed 19 civilians, setting off the incident in question. “We come here as your guests,” he told the relatives of those killed, “invited to aid in the reconstruction and improved security and governance of Nangarhar, to bring you a better life and a brighter future for you and your children. Today, as I look upon the victims and their families, I join you in mourning for your loved ones.”
Hall and Phillips were in charge of a portfolio of 33 active U.S. reconstruction projects worth $11 million in Nangarhar, focused on road-building, school supplies, and an agricultural program aimed at exporting fruits and vegetables from the province.
Yet the mission of their military-led “provincial reconstruction team” (made up of civilian experts, State department officials, and soldiers) appeared to be in direct conflict with those of the “capture/kill” team of special operations forces (Navy Seals, Army Rangers, and Green Berets, together with operatives from the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division) whose mandate was to pursue Afghans alleged to be terrorists as well as insurgent leaders. That team was leaving a trail of dead civilian bodies and recrimination in its wake.